Kim Jong-Il, the leader of North Korea since 1994, is dead. Official reports said he died of a heart attack, as a result of physical and mental overwork. (The official reports aren’t a surprise; Kim Jong-Il was usually depicted, in standard totalitarian fashion, as a selfless, gifted, heroic, hard-working leader.)
The dead leader apparently will be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Un. Not much is known about him; he is in his 20s and was appointed the successor only last year. Whether he will continue the isolationist, mercurial policies followed by his father is anybody’s guess. He will inherit a country that is cut off from the rest of the world and a population that has been decimated by famine and ill-advised economic policies.
There are lots of backward nations in the world, and we don’t usually care much about who leads them. North Korea is different because its focus always has been on its military — often at the expense of its starving people — and on constant saber-rattling with South Korea and its other democratic Asian neighbors. The fact that North Korea is largely unknown, has always been unpredictable, and has been publicly trying to develop nuclear weapons means we can’t overlook it in the face of the other challenges.
The world is a very dangerous place. We’ll learn soon enough whether it has become more, or less, dangerous with Kim Jong-Il’s passing.